Over at The Arena this morning they are asking whether the Democrats understand the meaning of their defeat in the Massachusetts senate race. My thoughts:
Do the Democrats ‘get it,’ you ask?
It’s a big tent party; some do and some don’t.
Somebody very cruel once said that Hubert Humphrey is a man who is twenty years ahead of his time — but that his time is 1948. That was a damning comment in 1972; it’s an even more damning one today, but I’m afraid this describes the mindset of a great many good Democrats.
For these people — earnest, passionate, often very smart and engaged, and many of them good friends of mine — the 1940s and 1950s model of progress still holds. The world is divided between three groups of people: a large mass of basically good but oppressed and poorly-educated working people (and small farmers) who need guidance, enlightenment and protection; evil and greedy corporations and special interests who seek to grind them down and suck them dry; and honest, competent, well-educated professionals whose job it is to steer society forward in the interests of the ignorant mass. Unfortunately the evil and greedy interests and their sly minions are good at befuddling and confusing the dumbass masses, using such retrograde themes as patriotism, religion and always and everywhere racism.
For Democrats with this mindset, the party has to balance the interests of the masses and the classes. That is, the masses are, regrettably, too stupid to know what is good for them. It is necessary for the enlightened professionals to steer a middle course between the unreflective populism of the masses and the self-destructive and shortsighted greed of the special interests. These Democrats interpret the populist revolt against the Obama administration (evil “teabaggers” and all) as a sign that the Democrats have steered too far toward the classes, creating a window of vulnerability for evil minion Republican demagogues to confuse the masses about who their real friends are. To hold this in check, the party needs to embrace more ‘populist’ economic rhetoric: crosses of gold, bankers foreclosing on widows, the whole William Jennings Bryan playbook. Card check, tax the rich, a hugely expensive jobs bill, regulate the hell out of business. This, they are deeply and utterly convinced, will foil the minions completely and let everyone know beyond any doubt who the real friends of the people are.
It is extremely difficult for people steeped in this mindset (as I was for many years) to wrap their heads around the core idea powering American politics in the last generation: a revolt by the ‘dumbass masses’ against this basic social map of the world. Huge chunks of the masses today don’t think they need or want tutors, directors, counselors, union leaders, civil servants or anybody else managing their affairs. They hunger and thirst for social and political autonomy — it is the liberal world view that they long to be freed of.
For many lower-middle and middle-middle class Americans, the upper-middle class has a basic strategy to protect its privilege and position: to define horrible social problems which require a privileged upper middle class professional establishment to manage. The fight over the role of government in America today is less ideological than class: the middle-middle class and its allies think that the upper-middle class and its allies use the state as a system to tax other people to defend the privileged class position of professionals, managers and civil servants. More and better funded university professors; more snooty lawyers with more power; more bureaucrats with life tenure and fat pensions; more money thrown down the rat holes of public schools dominated by self-seeking teacher unions.
To people coming from this (increasingly common) perspective, Democrats actually become much more offensive and patronizing when they embrace what they think of as populist economic rhetoric. When ‘populist’ Democrats try to respond to public dissatisfaction by offering their services as tribunes of the people out to crush evil monster corporations and vicious robber baron plutocrats with big new government programs, they unintentionally confirm popular suspicions that they are using public grievances to strengthen the class that many Americans think is their real enemy.
The war on upper-middle class privilege is the cause today that, for better or worse, embodies the spirit of American populism. Some Democrats get this; most don’t and, probably, sadly, won’t.